Shaun Levin

Archive for the ‘Writing Exercises’ Category

Whose Love Child Are You?

In Writing, Writing Exercises on September 25, 2020 at 9:13 am

When I think of her I think of her and Alice in that apartment in Paris. Alice in Paris. Alice in Paris painting, painting, Basket panting, waiting. I see them walking the poodle, having Picasso over, come over, Pablo, come over Hemingway, so they all came over and the. I think of her sitting, big solid sitting like a matriarch, widowed, skirts and chins and hands, he said, like a Russian peasant. Immigrant hands, he said. How entertaining she is, having people over, how lucky we are to be invited. Gertrude Stein on the one hand.

Him on the other. Crossing America, coast to coast, maybe stopping in Denver to see Carlos, aka Alan. He, too, speaking French, him and Gertrude plotting in French in the salon on rue Cardinal Lemoine (but that’s Hemingway’s place, he realises when he awakes from the dream. The Stein-Toklas residence is at 27 Rue de Fleurus). Him drunk and in love with a girl called Mary Lou. I think of him hunched over a typewriter. In her case it’s Alice typing up handwritten pages, slightly high on hash cookies (recipe available in The ABT cookbook). With him there is the enduring image, I’ve told this story so many times I sound like a drunk, at City Lights Bookstore going round with his beret gathering small change so he can go out and buy wine for all to drink.

Most of what I know about him, what is remembered, is from the Ann Charters biography, my first guidebook to being a writer. Jack Kerouac was the first writer I read about in such detail and so I wanted to be like him, the kind of writer I wanted to be. Will you be my writer-daddy? Diana Souhami’s biography of Gertrude and Alice was my other guide, always her and Alice, never her alone. That’s how to be a writer, with a loyal companion who loves you blindly, openeyedly, warts and all. And all that matters is writing, art, making sentences, weirdly, drunkenly, uninhibitedly.

Who are the writers to whom your soul first clung for guidance? Who are the (dead) writers who parented you, showed you the way, let you tread in their footsteps?

But we are fickle, changing parents as years go by, weeks change, days, sometimes we have others, but they are the ones who endure, though sometimes we forget, the way we forget a dead parent who out of the blue, such beautiful blue, clear sky blue, reveals themself to us, or we do something and realise that yes, we’re doing this because of them, this way of writing, this way of being a writer, this fantasy of writerhood, this ambition, action, opening of the heart in a certain way before a certain thing, yes, I inherited this from Gertrude, this I inherited from Jack.

These are my parents (today): Gertrude and Jack.


Who & What to Include

In Writing, Writing Exercises on September 21, 2020 at 11:27 pm

Watching the documentary about Fernando Torres on Amazon Prime got me thinking about what makes a good story about a single person, whether as biography, autobiography, or the tale of a fictional character. One answer is that the story is not primarily about them. Even Cinderella is not really all about Cinderella: there’s the ball and the sisters, the prince, his search, the glass slipper, there’s the fairy godmother and the pumpkin, there’s a lot going on and Cinderella might be present at most of it, but what makes the story a good story are all those elements that are not her.

In the documentary, there’s the team Torres plays for, there’s his country and the other countries he has lived in, there’s the Atlético Madrid Stadium, which is now a ghost (demolished), but was still visible from my apartment when I moved here a year ago, his coaches, his wife, his parents, his past, images of him growing up, him on the beach in Japan, his manager, sports commentators. The story of any character is made up of the stories of others.

How do you tell an autobiographical story and not make yourself the focus. Tell the story of your lovers, the story of letters received, objects held onto, gifts, documents, places you’ve been, but tell the story of those places, turn the camera to face away from you, who are the faces looking at you? What do others see? A kind of: Enough about me, tell me what you think about me. But in a way that makes the other characters the focus, the ones who are not you.

Find the reason that the story is being told. What has made you stand here and open your mouth to sing that aria? In the case of Torres, the present-day timeline – the reason for telling the story – are the three days leading up to his retirement from football.

What serves as the backbone to your story? What’s the duration of the framework, the temporal framing. There’s probably a technical word for this, but that sounds technical enough, perhaps too technical, because really the question is: at what point are your starting your story and by knowing the timeline, you’ll have a sense of where the story will probably end. I guess in the case of most biographies the time-frame is a life, birth to death, but if that person is alive, maybe the end point is a moment of rebirth into a new chapter that is beyond the ken of the book you’re now reading.

You think the story is about one thing but actually it’s about something else. You think it’s a story about survival, but really it’s a story about self-realisation and living an authentic life. The time frame is the achieving of that, or the promise of that, or the beginning of achieving that. Put into words what you think your story is about, because then you can begin to question your assumption and explore if the story might actually be about other things, too, and those other things could bring more stories that’ll add layers to your work. Maybe it’s a story about courage, about not being afraid. Maybe it’s a story about fear.

In the end Torres realises that… No. Watch it. It’s a good lesson in structure, variety, and the scope of a story.

Jewish New Year

In Story, Writing, Writing Exercises on September 18, 2020 at 11:02 pm

His agent’s daughter invites him to a party in the afternoon. He says he will do his best to make it but that he isn’t good with crowds, especially crowds of new people. New people and their children, although he does not say the latter. She comes to pick him up after the party, after everyone has gone home and only she and her boyfriend and their kids remain, the two sons still in the pool. The older son is wearing a wet suit. A friend is staying over, a young boy who is a whizz at ping-pong and with whom they play a brief game of doubles: the writer, the agent’s daughter’s boyfriend, and the older son.

Earlier that day, him and an old school friend had met up at LACMA, walked around the Japanese Pavilion, then gone for lunch at a place just up from the museum complex – a huge restaurant where they ate oversized plates of Caesar Salad.

His agent introduces him to a writer who is doing well, and the following day he and the old school friend go out for dinner with the writer. The writer comes to pick them up from the agent’s daughter’s house where they’ve been having afternoon tea, or the local equivalent, or the local equivalent of sherry before dinner. They drink hibiscus coolers. In this tiny world of interconnections, the agent’s daughter and the writer who is doing well have had an affair and so are jovial with each other.

Jovial is a word his agent had used at a lunch that week, to which his wife had said: “You never use that word.” To which the agent had said: “I should use it more often. It’s a good word.”

“I’ll pass,” the agent’s daughter says, when they suggest she joins them for dinner, him, the old school friend, and the writer who is doing well.

“Suit yourself,” the writer says.

“I’m going to have to redefine my narrative,” he thinks to himself as he sits by the pool the following morning, giving a big thumbs up to this way of life.

A friend had written to him: It’s about saying yes more confidently to what you want to be doing and the more you do that the more you drown out the distraction of those things you would otherwise be wanting to say no to. The friend calls to say that someone had said yes to her, a university department that had just hired her to teach a class in fiction. This yes-saying is contagious, he thinks. It feels good to be in the company of others who are being said yes to.

The cleaners come that afternoon to work on the house he is staying in, three women, perhaps a mother and daughter and the daughter’s friend, or perhaps three friends. The man who owns the house, a writer of movies who, too, is doing well and is now on holiday with his husband and their three children (or was it four?). The women dust the shelves, mop the floors, wash the clothes left by the couple and their children, climb a ladder to wipe the lampshades.

He is hungry but wants to wait for the women to leave before he eats, before he goes back inside from the garden and pool to make himself a snack. Later that evening he’s expected at his agent’s house, where, for a Jewish New Year dinner, various members of his family have been invited, along with other writers he represents.

“I feel imprisoned in this house,” he’d said to his friend.

Stranded in the suburbs.

Under house arrest.

When he was at school, he’d read a book my Raymunda Hawa Tawil (was that her name?) a Palestinian fighter and politician who had been under house arrest for a very long time. The book was green and had a picture of her or of her house on the front cover.

The cleaner says big houses are easier to clean than small ones, although he cannot remember the reasons she gave. She used to work for Will and Jada Smith. She’d been to Spain, driven with her husband from Sevilla to Portugal, then stayed for a day in Ireland where she didn’t like the cold. She’s been in California for 26 years. Tomorrow, she tells him, there won’t be much traffic when the Jewish people have their holiday. She also works for a Catholic lady from Switzerland who is married to a Jewish guy.

At the agent’s house for Rosh Hashanah dinner, all types of herring: Danish, cream, chopped and some chopped liver, too, which he does not eat. The herring he eats. It’s the kind of herring he ate and liked as a child, always there on the table at holiday meals: Passover, New Year, and probably there to break the Yom Kippur fast, along with a glass of milk and soda water. Present at this dinner are: the agent’s adult son and his young girlfriend, and the son of this son, whose mother is not the girlfriend. They all talk about family, about this one and that one, and how he, the writer, has written a book that is going to be a great success.

The conversation does not linger on his book. It shifts to the crisis in Syria and to stories of shoplifting: the agent’s son had stolen chocolates in Paris, the daughter used to take money from her mother’s handbag. Tomorrow is Friday, then the next day will be the day he goes back to London. He will be tired and will sleep on the plane. When he gets home, he will try to stay awake and if there is sun, he will sit in the sun to synchronise his body clock. He will go to the gym and then the following day he will go to Liverpool, then come back from Liverpool into Yom Kippur, after which he will return to his new book, the one he has just started writing.

What journey are you beginning now? Write about the journey that is starting in your life now.

from notebook entry dated 3 Sept. 2013 (aka Early Utterances from a Writing Life)

What’s the Conflict?

In Writing, Writing Exercises on September 13, 2020 at 9:26 am

My conflict with the world is noise. The jettisoning of bottles into recycling bins, a lift cranking up and down, cleaning trucks at 4am, neighbours banging front doors shut, an entrance door to a building slams, dogs bark at pitches so high they can be heard from miles away, a person on their mobile phone, traffic lights go beep beep beep for 20 seconds every minute. Sounds in the distance, sounds nearby. A bomb whistles, a siren starts up, a warning.

What’s your character’s conflict? Their quarrel, struggle, collision, discord, battle, opposition in the world. What is it? What’s their mountain to climb? As in life, it’s easier to identify the conflicts of others (don’t we love to give advice?). The absence of conflict is easier to spot when the story is not your own. Where’s the conflict? is not a question I ask myself when it comes to my own stories. Just writing the story is achievement enough, having overcome the voices that want to silence, censor, shut us up, insist we behave. Behave yourself! Getting to the end of a story is to overcome a conflict.

Some days, just getting through them, is a triumph.

Is that enough for fiction, for a story, for the things we write? Sometimes it’s enough just to tell the tale of an event, an experience. But is it? Sometimes the conflict is the pull to be silent, to be distracted. Sometimes a story would rather you kept quiet. Every story is a win over the gagging order. But is it? At some point, ask yourself, where is the conflict, what is the conflict, because the more we know about the conflict in our character’s life, or at least at this particular point in their life, the more we can bring to the story, of the character’s past, the concrete, non-symbolic hurdle they must overcome, the secondary characters there to help and hinder.

To identify the conflict is to identify the core around which a story can be made. My Spanish teacher, E., suggests we read an article about Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces, a book I read 30 years ago, and talk about some of the themes in the story, the main theme being what makes a story (or a life). Words like umbral and periplo and acudir a la llamada are now part of my vocabulary. Threshold, journey (not just the viaje type), and heed the call are good words in any language. E. says something that stays with me, something about our main conflict being death, that our primary conflict as human beings is with death and its inevitability, and it gets me thinking about those noises that are a distraction, the power of distraction to silence us, our battle against distraction, what often feels like a losing battle, and how that silencing is an echo of the greatest silencing of all.

Some Writers

In Writing, Writing Exercises on September 7, 2020 at 12:25 pm

Some writers write at home. Some writers write in hotel rooms. Maya Angelou had a regular hotel room in which she wrote. Hotel rooms are good places to write. Some writers write in cafés. At some point you realise what type of writer you are, what your writing routine looks like, when and where you write best. Some writers are stricter than others. Do the most important thing first, is what some writers say. Do the writing first. Some writers start the day with admin. Some writers start the day with a run, or a walk around the block, or push ups. Some writers do push ups in their pauses. Some writers procrastinate. I’m not sure that’s a legitimate way of being a writer, but if things eventually get done then maybe it is. Some writers work on one thing. Some writers always have more than one thing on the go. Some writers feel bad about procrastinating. Some writers beat themselves up. Some writers give themselves license to do whatever they want as long as they get things done. Some writers like sunshine and some like the early hours of the morning. The wee hours. The owl hours. Some writers are night owls. Some writers wake up at 3. For some it’s a pm 3 for others it’s when others are going to bed. Some writers run a lot, like 10k a day. Some writers need a view and others need a wall. Some need silence. I know a writer who needs a lot of silence. I know a writer who gave up, said they were done, that they were tired, that life was too short. Some writers just keep going because what else is there to do. Some writers like to talk about their writing. Others wouldn’t dare. What you working on? Oh, you know. Some writers will tell you everything. Some writers will tell you nothing. Some writers walk, and others stare at the ceiling. Often these are one and the same writer. Some writers are competitive, always keeping an eye on what others are doing. Other writers, to be honest, don’t really care about things like that. They’re just happy to be writing. That’s what they tell themselves. I know writers like that. I know them intimately. Others used to be competitive or became more competitive with age. Writing is not a competition. Some writers like all-consuming projects. Some writers write in short burst, little stories that resonate. Some writers plan. Some writers love the company of other writers, others like the company of other artists, all sorts of artists as long as they’re not writers. Some artists don’t get writers. Some artists look down on writers, think that what they (we) do is easy. Some writers know that writing is the hardest art, that there is no art form more difficult than writing, that writing is the only visual art where you have to rely on words, on one colour on an off-white background. Some writers don’t know that writing is a visual art. Some writers are frustrated visual artists or dancers or something that is not writing but when they write they embody the painter or the ballet dancer or the acrobat that they dream of being. Some writers write as a second choice. Some writers don’t know what they’d do without writing. Some writers think that writing is a curse, their cross to bear, and they love it and they hate it and it causes them so much pain and so much joy that they’re not quite sure sometimes how they feel about it. Some writers sleep well at night and some have insomnia. I know many writers who have insomnia. Some writers are anxious people. All writers are anxious people. It is not possible to be a chilled-out writer. Some writers think that writing is a way to alleviate anxiety. Some writers rely on writing to make a noise after many years of feeling silenced, a whole childhood of feeling silenced, or being silenced, because some people should be seen and not heard or not seen at all, and some writers have gone through things that if it wasn’t for writing might have drowned in that thing or the consequences of that thing. For some writers writing is fun. I love writing. It makes me so happy when I write. Is a complicated statement. Because it’s true. Some writers wish they could be writing all the time, that wouldn’t life be great if all we did was write, which goes back to that hotel room where all you have to do is write and sleep and lie in the bath and can you bring me a burger and I’ll have the continental breakfast today and yes I’m ready for my mid-morning coffee and can I have a slice of that carrot cake you had last week. Okay, no problem, the chocolate cake is good, too. Some writers are not fussy. Some writers are fussy. Some writers have a talisman, a ritual, a candle to light, background music to play, a desk, a pen, a type of paper. Some writers don’t write on paper. Some writers type. Some writers work straight onto the computer. Some writers would not be able to write without a notebook. I know a writer who does everything first in the notebook. Some writers work. Some writers plan. Some writers go into it not knowing where they’ll land up. Some writers know where they’ll land up but they love it anyway. Some writers love the process. Some writers are in it for the ride. Some writers don’t like the end and arriving at their destination because really what it means is that a whole new journey will begin and they must now get to the end of this one and stop.

Exercise: Write until you find a good anchor phrase, something that can be repeated at the beginning of each sentence, then keep using it, over and over, until you run out of steam. (See also: “On the Importance of Having Unread Books on Your Bookshelf.”)

A Single Written Sentence

In Writing, Writing Exercises, Writing Workshops on September 1, 2020 at 3:54 pm

It may come as a shock how little time you need to write a book. A story is loyal to those who turn up to write it, and that loyalty grows with the regularity with which one turns up.

(Even though I set the timer and I told myself I’d write for 20 minutes, along came a distraction, and to be honest I can’t remember what the distraction was, maybe it was the delivery guy with the books, but that was 8 hours ago and so much has happened since then, so many distractions, so many nice things, the regular day to day things that fill our hours, like spending time – online, on Whereby – with a friend and doing what we call office time or water-cooler time, in other words, we work in our separate living rooms/studios/bedrooms and there’s accountability. Things get done. Not those initial 20 minutes, though, the ones I started 8 hours ago, so here I am at the other end of the day, starting over.)

It may come as a surprise how little time is needed to write a book. An hour a day is a generous amount, and done daily, seven days a week, as Walter Mosley suggests – no days off – you’ll have a book by the end of the year.

Try it. Set the timer and write for 5 minutes. Whatever comes to mind, even if it’s just to repeat what can I write what can I write I need something to say I want something to say and something will come I promise you that.

In 5 minutes (this is a recent discovery) I usually write approximately 150 words, even with slight pauses here and there, which would mean that in 20 minutes I could do 600 words, which means that in 1 hour I can write almost 2,000 words. 2,000 words over 30 days = 60,000 words, which is a first draft of considerable dimensions. Write for 5 minutes just to see what happens, to get a sense of what you can do in that time. I don’t believe in the importance of word counting, but I do think it’s helpful to know what you can do in a given amount of time. Why? To dispel the myth of the inordinate amount of time needed to write a book. More than the word count, the turning up, the making time is what matters.

Whenever I make time, I have something to show for it, even if it’s just a sentence. A single written sentence is a lot more than an unwritten novel. I’m not sure what that statement actually means, whether it’s of any use to myself or others, but I sense there’s a truth in it.

I want to say something about time spent in good company. Writing with others is my favourite way to write. Writing is lonely, having to be both the writer and the audience is a challenge. Often the project itself is all the company you need, and when that happens it’s a kind of miracle. Writing in a café or art gallery is often all the company I need. But writing with a friend on a park bench or at the kitchen table is my favourite way to write.

Tomorrow’s plan: Writing with friends.

Too Much Drama Too Close to the Start

In Writing, Writing Exercises on March 6, 2013 at 12:39 pm

Sometimes you wake up into the hopelessness. What you’ve written is all wrong. That scene you’ve just spent the last few days writing threatens to topple the entire novel with its consequences. And, no, you are not catastrophising! Something as big as that scene should not be happening so near the beginning of the novel; there needs to be time for things like that to build up, time for that kind of crescendo or confrontation to happen. Even hope needs time. And redemption. Drama as big as that can happen later. Save it for the peak. A scene like that, with that kind of energy, can, before it appears, carry the tension and suspense of a novel for a good few chapters.

So what do you do with it now? Now that it’s been written and it’s all wrong.

Sit in it. Sit with the worry and the dread that you’ve messed up, that the novel is on shaky ground and it’s all your fault. You’ve ruined it. Sit with that. Make a cup of tea and sit in a chair you don’t often sit in and think about what to do. On a day like yesterday, after what has felt like, and has been weeks of grey skies, sheets of it weighing down on the city like an iron dome, you could sit outside in the sun. That’s somewhere you haven’t been able to sit very often recently. Sit in the chaos. Mythology teaches us that chaos cannot last forever. Even if it feels like it will.

The solution (ie. order) can only come out of the chaos. No distractions. No outside help. This is a big one and you need to go it alone. It’s your novel. To paraphrase the Abbess of Crewe, in her lofty calm: “There’s a novel going on, and you’re in it up to the neck, whether you like it or not.”

One solution is to mute the scene, to take the intensity down a notch or two. Save the major drama for later. The major drama you thought would happen now can be postponed; the muted version will create a hunger for more, a bloodlust for the real showdown. And that hunger will sit in the novel like a secret, like a time bomb, an IED, something waiting to be told, to erupt, to reveal itself when least expected. If you know that, the reader will get a sense of it and even if they’re not conscious of it, they’ll be waiting. And so will you.

Save the big drama for your own surprise.

Another thing to do with big drama that feels wrong, that feels over the top too soon, is to turn it into a what-if, an imagined moment. So if you’ve just written the scene in which she lunges for the woman in the department store who’s just called her vile names and yanks the earring from her ear, ripping apart the lobe, you could transform that into what the character imagining doing something so violent, a what-if scenario. And by doing that you will have 1) created a scene of intense drama, albeit imagined, and 2) conveyed the character’s capacity for acts of violence that will now sit in the novel like Chekhov’s loaded gun.

Sometimes the best thing to do is to go to sleep, and to wake up into whatever you wake up into. Sometimes the horror of having done it all wrong is the beginning of the solution. Without that, something not-quite-right might have stayed in the novel and done to it what you most feared it would. It might even have scared you off.

How do we get better if there is never a sense of failure, never a moment of wondering now what? Our mistakes can be an asset. They raise questions, things to grapple with that lead to answers, new ways of dealing with narrative that will then be available to us when similar problems arise in the future.

And yes, I know someone who did that to someone in a department store when she was in high school in North London. But that’s another story.

Moving through the Story

In Writing, Writing Exercises on July 4, 2012 at 12:07 pm

On the phone this morning, we talked about movement, that you need movement in a story, that even if you’re sitting in a room staring at the ceiling or at the wall or out of the window or in the dark, you need movement. Movementlessness in a story is death. Movement happens in time, movement in space. A character remembers the beach, the waves, the starfish on the wet sand. A character thinks of suicide, of how they’ll do it. (I’ve been reading a Kafka biography and so many of his characters seem to commit suicide. And in a way it feels like he did, too, even if he didn’t.) The movement of jumping off a bridge. The movement of getting up to make a cup of tea, and the memories that brings.

And there’s the movement of the writing itself, because really that’s what writing is, even if we’re doing it on a keyboard, writing is born out of movement. No matter how much of your story or novel you imagine in your head, it will never be the same as the one that comes out when you start moving the pen on the page, the fingers on the keyboard. Writing – all movement – generates its own stories.

We were talking about walking. And rushing. We were talking about procrastination and making snap decisions. I’d been listening to Midweek on Radio 4 where Frank Partnoy had been talking about his new book, Wait: The Art and Science of Delay and in praise of procrastination. And Fatima Whitbread was talking about javelins and her life. And the journalist, Chris Bird, was telling about how he became a doctor. And that’s what makes a good story/radio programme. moving between people, adding layers within a framework, setting up the things or the people you’ll move between.

And I was talking about walking to Steve Wasserman for his great online podcasts, Read Me Something You Love. We were saying how Kafka – yes, Kafka again (it was his birthday yesterday) – how Kafka manages to create the sense of movement in his stories, in the two very short stories we read, “A Spur-of-the-Moment Walk” and “Passers-by”, and how the story itself follows the movement of the walker, who is also the narrator, although not entirely the I, but a disguised I, the I hiding behind the “you” or the “one” and in that way creates a feeling of movement, a tension, between who we know to be the I and the I that is not proclaiming itself.

Check your stories for movement. Chart the movement of your characters, the movement between chapters, the changes in pace and location. Memory is movement away from the now, as is fantasy, and wishing, and dread.

What would you say is not movement, and is stagnant?

They say a character alone in a room thinking, especially at the beginning of a story or a novel, is the worst thing you can do. My pet hate are stories that begin with a character waking up, as if that is ever the beginning of anything. But I also think it has something to do with the prose, that it’s not just about what a character is doing. You have to feel that the prose is leading you somewhere, that it’s taking you deeper into a story, into a mind, into an existence. The prose has to take us deeper into a soul, deeper into the unconscious, to a place where language is murky, and then struggle to put that murkiness into words. Writing that struggles moves. Writing that wants to find out, moves. Writing that is not happy with just depicting what is visible – that’s writing that moves.

Writing is digging. Writing is chiseling and hammering and slowly scooping out a tunnel with a teaspoon. Hoping for light.

We talked about moving through a story, the time it takes to get from a to b. I think linear movement can often feel like no movement, like the bright green line that runs across the middle of a heart rate monitor. And the dull noise that goes with that. And the switch that is the reader’s mind turning to OFF.

You Can’t Force It (Metaphors, Memories and Insights)

In Writing, Writing Exercises on February 23, 2012 at 2:30 pm

A story needs to go places. Even on the level of the sentence, a story needs to go places, and by places I mean unexpected places. Huge twists and turns, perhaps, but what I’m thinking about are little surprises along the way, like a turn of phrase, like a metaphor, a simile. Like: “Claudio… has been making passes at Clay like a Roman cafe waiter with a schoolgirl on a junior year abroad” or “Tall and thin, with skin the colour of an old penny and a face as angular and humourless as that of a Byzantine saint” or “the doors make a heavy prosperous sound when they slam, like a vault closing”.* Metaphors or similes that delight, that make us smile, that don’t eject us out of the story, but make us feel the writer has left this metaphor in the story to entertain us. As writers, we have to feel good about our metaphors, proud of them.

The other thing is flashbacks. Memories. More often than not it’s awful when a writer says something along the lines of “And suddenly he remembered that…” and you land up feeling that this memory has been put in there for some purpose, for some backstory purpose, and not because it emerged with integrity out of the telling. Flashbacks have to feel like something that could not be repressed, that they appeared at this very moment in the story because they had to, there was no other choice. “Suddenly…” is never a good way to start a sentence.

I’ve been thinking that in a short story, one flashback is often enough. More than one and it becomes a story with flashbacks, about flashbacks, about the past, and not what’s happening in the now of the story. Of course, some stories are about the past. Some stories are a flashback.

I like a story that has a moment of realization, a point in the story – often towards the end – where the character learns something, where a kind of epiphany happens. Stories like that are satisfying. Satisfying in the way that a pub at the end of a long walk is satisfying, or home. An insight is something to carry into the future. Flashbacks are about the past, and metaphors are about the now of the telling, the sentence that is unfolding before us on the page, like a carpet unravelling, like a wave receding to expose what is there on the sand.

Memories, insights and metaphors are the moments of a story’s virtuosity, the moments when a story does a little trick, a dance. We are surprised. We are amused. Sometimes they leave us breathless. One precise insight, one bubbling-up memory, one good metaphor and the story is lifted to a higher plane.

An exercise: Take a story you’ve already written. See if you have all three elements in it. Is there a memory that expands the range of the story? Does it take us to a different place? Somewhere geographically different, further away. Does it make the story bigger, help it cover more ground? And is there an insight at the end of the story, a realisation, a moment in which the character (and the writer, too) understands something? Then have a look if you can change that realisation, make it the opposite of what you thought it was going to be, and see how that changes the story.

And the metaphors and similes? How many of those do you have? Follow some of your sentences and see where you can add a metaphor at the end, a metaphor that will allow you to play a bit, that allows you to follow your imagination. Be literary. Be the kind of writer you admire. Entertain yourself. Metaphors take practice, the practice of letting go, of seeing where your imagination carries you. You can’t force a metaphor. Or a memory. Or an insight. You have to let go into the story to let them emerge. You have to, as a friend of mine says, be your own typist. Take dictation from your subconscious.

* all quotes are from the stories in Andrea Lee’s Interesting Women. And yes, out of context, a metaphor/simile can sound odd.

The Subject Matter that Is Your Life

In Writing, Writing Exercises on June 3, 2011 at 10:43 pm

Take stock. Make a list of all the things you have to write about. Keep a little notebook of these subjects, these moments, these memories, these experiences, these people. Make a list of all your cousins, the things you remember doing with them, things people told you about them. Make a list of all the jobs you’ve had, even if it was only for a few hours, that job you walked out of pretty much immediately. The job you’ve had for twenty years. Make a list of your aunts and uncles. All the houses you’ve lived in, the people you’ve lived with. Make a list of everyone you’ve had sex with, even if just for a few minutes, even if just the one. Make a list of all the celebrities you fancy. All the movies you love and would want to see again, and the books. Make a list of all the writers you’d like to be. To meet. To love. Make a list of all the things you know, and the things you know how to do. Realise that you carry around with you a vast resource, a bottomless treasure chest. You never have to worry about not having something to write about. The only thing you need to worry about is the voice that tells you what you should be writing about, and what you should be writing about, it says, is something that has nothing to do with your life. If you want to write fiction, the mean voice says, you have to go as far away as possible from your experience. Nonsense. That is the voice that doesn’t want you to tell the story that means the most to you, the story that will challenge you and offer the most surprises and satisfaction. Make a list of all the windows you’ve looked out of, all the cakes you’ve baked, and eaten, all the strangers you’ve spoken to on a train, even if it’s just one, write about her. All this is your resource for fiction, too. Write about yourself, write about what you know, write to discover what you don’t know in the things you think you know. Don’t ignore the subject matter that is your life.

Fiction is make-believe, it’s pretending, it’s inventing characters and situations. Make a list of the places you’d like to go to. Research them and write about them as if you’ve been there. Make a list of the experiences you’ve never had and pick the ones that intrigue you, the ones you hope you’ll never have and the ones that you want to have and research them, interview people who’ve had them, then write about them as if they’re yours. Write about torture and intimate contentment and walking barefoot for miles and crossing oceans on sea-liners and surviving a war and famine and tea at the Ritz. You don’t have to go there to know there, though you will have to find a place in you that has been there, that has experienced something that is an echo of the experience you want to write about, no matter how much it might seem alien to your world. And that, too, is part of the soul work.